Old and on the road

Our intrepid musician/music columnist John Burdick

I am, by 20 years, the oldest body in the van, and, in whatever units experience is measured, the least experienced by an equivalent margin. The life here is exactly as imagined and described: long, bumpy rides bookended by vigorous bursts of physical action, many of them in the predawn hours; odd-length swaths of downtime; accumulating grime and clothes that will not get less rumpled; intimacy of tight quarters; the dread certainty of poor food choices. One tries to resist the ubiquity, the opulence and the convenience of junk food; but in one domain of the mind, in the rationalized conscience, this crap doesn’t count against metabolism, for one is, metaphorically, in another country. And besides, the dream is dead.

I am on tour (please hold applause), as short notice fill-in guitarist, in a rock band, in a spavined white van, a punk van, in California, writing now in a McDonald’s south of San Diego. I am playing bigger venues than I am used to, but not much bigger. I am making more money playing music than I am used to, but not a lot more. The crowds tend to be larger too, but that is not the important difference.

It is in the texture of the experience. People in cities far away will buy tickets to see this group, and will show up knowing the songs. A positive assumption about the band and the music has already been won via the good records and tireless touring of my new bandmates: a kind of scaffolding that allows the show to begin at a higher level of trust and buy-in than what I am used to. It is, perhaps, my first experience of what smarmy industry types, in whatever hip costumes they might be wearing today, call “traction.”


That said, I am the new guy, and the old guy, and the odd guy, imported from other genres, not innately fluent in the playing styles and common influences of this scene; and even though I have played hundreds and hundreds of shows in the last ten years, a “prove it” mentality is strong in me each night. The positive assumption may have already been won, but I damn well don’t want to be the one who squanders some of it with clueless, off-style old hippie playing and the bad optics of middle age. Words like jammy and jazzy are anathema here. I really have to watch what I say on guitar.

Only Day Five, but so far it’s been a wild hit with me. The shows have been good in my opinion – the only opinion that doesn’t really matter, but it’s mine. My middle-aged body is holding up admirably. I find I have not only enough back to manage the somewhat punk rig I have been outfitted with (sweet blackface Bassman head, but a clunky 2 12” closed-back cabinet and absurdly heavy road cases), but also enough vim to assist the more acutely injured drummer as well. Insomnia was only an issue on Night One. Progress with regularity, too. Day Five and I don’t want this to end.

I always knew I would take well to touring (my previous “long” was a mere four nights). Ask me again at the end of the month; but for now, no surprises, no disappointments, no swelling disenchantment, no homesickness. People with a few notches on their belts always tell you, “It’s not what you think it is.” How the f*ck do you know what I think it is? I like to play guitar and work on music by day and by night. Everything else except beer and friends is pretty much just a bother. Writing’s okay, but nothing special. My tolerance for Spartan conditions and mindless compliance, going where I am pointed, is high. I was made for this.

Still marveling at the dates ahead, all the mountains and coast I will see but not explore, all the cities and towns I will have learned nothing additional about, for touring is a strictly focused kind of tourism. In fairness, I have one clutch advantage on this tour: The drummer is one of my dearest friends. That makes most things okay.

Everyone in the band plus a driver/merch guy (accomplished touring musician in his own right, and an utterly swell fellow) is smart, verbal, funny. They are old hat at this; it is just what they call “life.” They’ve been doing it for a third of their lives or more. Conversation subjects are various, but do incline naturally toward a shared past of road adventures and common friends that I am on the outside of. If I wanted to be a punk about it, I might pipe up every now and then with a “remember when…” and then recount something that happened last night or this morning.

Fame (or the desire for glory, depending on the translation) is the last infirmity cast off even by the wise (or by the noble mind, depending on the translation). Could Tacitus even have imagined what a defining and disfiguring force the desire for glory would become in our age? Is that what this is: the last flailing of my desire for glory, looking for a scrap of narrative justification that I “mattered” in music in some way?

Perhaps, but I don’t care. About the age thing, I am radicalized. If someone looks at me and thinks, “Damn, he’s old for this,” I say: “What is it you think you are going to like when you are my age? Do you imagine you will be someone different? Someone whose dreams and appetites have been dismissed, making room for a complacent wisdom and corrected values? If you aren’t loving it at 50, chances are you didn’t really love it at 30 either. The more age-blind you can be right now, the more options and licenses you’ll be creating for your future self.”

Here’s my future self right now, living my ass-backwards life (careers in my 20s and 30s, hardscrabble cobbling and gee-tar picking in my middle age). My bandmates are probably starting to stir in the Vagabond next door, and this pancake platter isn’t going to eat itself. I must be going.